LOS ANGELES — Responding to a threat emailed to school board members, all Los Angeles Unified School District campuses were closed Tuesday while authorities conducted an exhaustive search of more than 1,500 school sites.
The threat was found to be not credible, and classes will resume Wednesday.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Sheriff Jim McDonnell said patrols would be stepped up around the school campuses to help allay any uneasiness among students and parents. The LAUSD also plans to have crisis counselors available on campuses.
“There will always be temptation after a day like today to increase the blame and the anger and the vitriol and the suspicion, but what we saw today across Los Angeles was a community turning toward each other, not against each other,” school board President Steve Zimmer said at an afternoon news conference Tuesday. “And that is the spirit with which we invite all of our families, all of our kids, all of our teachers back into the LAUSD public schools tomorrow in the hope that we will never, ever have to have another day like today, and that through our children, the hope of a much better tomorrow will carry the day tomorrow, next week, next year and to our future.”
LAUSD officials announced shortly before 7 a.m. that all schools would be closed for the day in response to the threat, which made reference to bombs, weapons and other destructive devices that had allegedly been planted on campuses throughout the district.
A similar threat was received by school officials in New York, but authorities there deemed it to be a hoax and kept campuses open.
LAUSD officials would not provide specifics of the threat, which was initially reported by police to have come via telephone, but was later revealed to have come in via email, apparently either from or routed through Frankfurt, Germany. Beck said that officials believe the email likely originated from somewhere much closer than Germany.
U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, said he saw the email, and said the author “claims to be an extremist Muslim who has teamed up with local jihadists.”
“We do not know whether these claims are true or a lie. We do not know whether this email is from a devout Muslim who supports jihadists or perhaps a non-Muslim with a different agenda,” he said. “The email makes relatively specific and wide-ranging threats to Los Angeles schools. We do not know whether some or all of the threats are truthful.”
The decision to close the schools prompted some criticism — notably from New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, a former LAPD chief. Bratton told reporters in New York that closing all LAUSD campuses was a “significant overreaction.”
Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he made the unprecedented decision to close all school campuses out of an abundance of caution, saying that “based on past circumstances, I could not take the chance.” He specifically referenced the Dec. 2 terrorist shooting in San Bernardino as contributing to his decision.
Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti stood behind Cortines, saying the safety of students is a top priority.
“If you knew what the superintendent and the school board knew at 5:30 this morning when this decision needed to be made, would you have sent your child to school?” Beck asked hypothetically.
The LAUSD closure applied to all campuses — more than 900 of them. The district is also home to about 200 charter schools that were also affected, along with dozens of educational centers. Zimmer said more than 1,500 educational sites were searched. The district, the nation’s second biggest, serves an estimated 700,000 students.
Most other Southland schools outside the LAUSD remained open, although some Catholic schools run by the Los Angeles Archdiocese were closed because of their proximity to LAUSD campuses.
Diocese officials said that decision was left to individual school principals.
Garcetti said that while the threat was ultimately found to be not credible, its exact intention was still unclear.
“I want to be very careful because that does not mean it was conclusively one thing or another yet,” the mayor said. “Some have used words that I think are probably inappropriate like ‘hoax’ and other things. Whether it’s criminal mischief, whether it’s somebody testing vulnerabilities of multiple cities, we still do not know enough to say definitively. But what we do know is that it will be safe for our children to return to school tomorrow.”
Beck said, however, the email contained very specific threats aimed at the LAUSD. He had strong words for anyone who might criticize Cortines for deciding to close the schools, saying the “safety of our children” is the highest of priorities.
Parents were told to keep their children at home and retrieve those already taken to school by meeting them at the campuses’ reunion gates.
Officials with the FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also took part in the investigation.
Cortines said he ordered the closures because he was not going to take a chance given recent terror strikes in Paris and San Bernardino.
“I think it’s important to take this precaution based on what has happened recently and what has happened in the past,” he said, speaking less than two weeks after a couple — a U.S. citizen of Pakistani background and his Pakistani wife — killed 14 people in San Bernardino in the deadliest terror strike on U.S soil since 9/11.
At the end of the day, Cortines said the decision to close schools “was not made lightly.”
“It disrupted the lives of our students, our employees and their families,” he said. “Based on recent events, I took this precaution out of an abundance of caution and to ensure safety and security in our schools.”